My grandfather was born in Minsk, the capital of White Russia. The original family name was Tarant, not Kaplan. My grandmother was born in Lepel, in the province of Vitebsk. I should note that the name Kamenoff is derived from a village called Kamen, in the vicinity of Lepel. The Poliakoffs, another early Jewish family in Aiken, originated in Kamen, so it is likely that these two families knew each other in the Old Country.
My grandparents met in New York City and married there in 1908. They came to the Aiken area in 1908 or 1909, more than a hundred years ago—well before the founding of Adath Yeshurun, Aiken’s synagogue. What brought them to Aiken, undoubtedly, was the fact that my grandmother’s brother-in-law and sister, Jacob and Julia Kamenoff Wolf, were already living there. The first place in South Carolina that they called home was not the town of Aiken, but rather the village of Wagener, about 25 miles from Aiken itself. My grandfather, like so many Jews before and after him, opened a country store. There had been no stores in Wagener before my grandparents arrived, so I have been told, and they were also the first Jews to settle in the town. According to Uncle Ben, my father’s oldest brother, there was no more anti-Semitism in Wagener than one would find in Tel Aviv. My grandparents were the object of curiosity, but not hostility.
My father, Raymond, was the youngest of four brothers. Born in Wagenerin 1927, he was three years old when the family moved to Aiken, where my grandfather ran a business hauling fruit between South Carolina and Florida. Sam and Ida died within six weeks of each other when I was just over a year old, so I have no memories of them. However, Sam was described to me as a sweet man who was well liked.
One story that my father passed on to me about my grandfather is an excellent example of the contradictions of living in the South, particularly in an earlier era. One of Sam’s close friends was active in the Ku Klux Klan in Aiken. As a Klansman, he disliked Jews in principle, but he loved Mr. Sam, as my grandfather was known.
As to my grandmother, my mother tells a revealing story she undoubtedly heard from my father. My grandmother and her best friend, Sophie Rudnick (mother-in-law of the Hon. Irene K. Rudnick and grandmother of Morris Rudnick, Esq.), liked to sit on one of the park benches lining Laurens Street, Aiken’s main thoroughfare, and read the Yiddish paper aloud and talk to each other in Yiddish. My father and his friend Harold Rudnick (Sophie’s son) would shrink in embarrassment while this was going on.
Sophie Rudnick’s husband, Morris, was as close a friend to my grandfather as his wife was to my grandmother. He was a man of great physical strength. After my grandfather became paralyzed on one side of his body, the result of a stroke, Morris would literally pick him up and put him in his car, and the two men would go for a ride.
In the early 20th century, Aiken’s Jews held religious services intermittently above stores and in places such as the Aiken Masonic hall. However, they did not formally organize as a religious community until 1921, when Congregation Adath Yeshurun obtained a charter of incorporation from the state of South Carolina.
The little Jewish community of Aiken opened the synagogue in time for Rosh Hashanah in 1925. I remember the late Mandle Surasky, who for years was the congregation’s lay leader, telling me how he, Meyer Harris, and a couple of others rushed to get the synagogue ready for High Holy Day services that year. The beautiful little synagogue of Adath Yeshurun still stands and is still in use. I recall my mother telling me that a handful of Jews built that synagogue.
I can thank my late father—and my mother as well—for glimpses of Jewish life in Aiken before I was born or old enough to remember. Some of these early Jews were people of great piety. Jacob Wolf’s father, I was told, always wore a yarmulke and liked to say his daily prayers outside at dawn with his tallis over his head, in keeping with Orthodox custom. That certainly must have attracted a lot of attention.
Services at Adath Yeshurun in the early years reflected the Orthodoxy of its founders. The sanctuary has a single center aisle, and my mother says that when she married my father and moved to Aiken in 1951, men sat on one side of the aisle and women sat on the other side, although there was no formal mechitza separating the seating for men and women. Most of the women had their own prayer books that they brought to shul. (I still have my grandmother’s.) My father said that the synagogue was packed when he was growing up. There was no rabbi in Aiken, but the baal tefilah (the lay hazzan), was a man named Zushke Poliakoff, who wore a beard, a bowler hat, and a long tallis. My uncles found his reading of the prayers, which he apparently did with great speed, a source of mirth. Since none of my uncles knew Hebrew, what they told me should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.
Of the many stories I’ve been told, one stands out in my mind concerning Mrs. B. M. Surasky, an outstanding figure in Aiken’s Jewish community in days gone by, who, my mother recalls, took upon herself responsibility for collecting funds for various Jewish causes from Jewish businesses in town. As an elderly woman, she was driven around Aiken by an African-American man who had worked for the Surasky family for years. Everyone called him Eb; no one can remember his last name. Eb would go into each business to collect funds for Mrs. Surasky while she sat in the car. He would come out of one store after the other and show Mrs. Surasky how much money he had been given. If she was not satisfied, she would tell him to go back inside and let the proprietor know that he had to give a larger sum, at least as much as he had donated the year before.
Eb was a wonderful man. After my grandfather’s stroke, Eb came to his house every morning and helped him bathe.
As a child, I remember Eb as caretaker of the synagogue. On a typical Friday night, about two dozen people would attend services, but my mother remembers that on the High Holy Days Adath Yeshurun drew from towns smaller than Aiken, such as Barnwell, Williston, Edgefield, Johnston, Ninety-Six, and Saluda, and the sanctuary would fill with worshippers.
My parents met in Charleston, where my mother, Ruth Kirshtein Kaplan, was born and grew up. Before they were married my mother told my father that she wanted them to have a kosher household. My father agreed to this. My grandparents had tried to keep kosher when they settled in Wagener in the first decade of the last century, but they gave up the attempt. By the time they got back to Wagener with kosher meat, it was spoiled.
My supposition is that most of the first Jewish families in Aiken maintained kosher households. By the time my parents set up housekeeping, however, the only other family my mother knows for sure was keeping kosher was that of my great-aunt Julia Kamenoff Wolf. I remember her as Tanteh Goldie. My mother’s uncle Rev. Alter Kirshtein was the shohet in Charleston and had a butcher shop at the time. He would cut up and package a side of kosher meat for my mother and send it to her on the Greyhound bus. After my great-uncle gave up his butcher shop and retired, we got our meat from Shapiro’s, the kosher butcher in nearby Augusta. In the early years of my parents’ marriage, rabbinical students who came to Aiken to conduct services for the High Holy Days would eat at their house because my mother kept kosher.
By the early 1960s, Adath Yeshurun had undergone some changes. Men and women now sat together and read from a Conservative prayer book. The congregation was shrinking, including attrition in our own family, with the death of my grandparents and the departure of two of their older sons, Uncle Isadore (Itch) and Uncle Abe, and their families. I don’t remember the synagogue being crowded with the exception of Simhat Torah, when my brother Sam, sister Laura, and I would march around the synagogue with the other children. The procession was led by Mr. Nathan Persky, who would then gather us all on the bimah under a large tallis, held up at the corners by four men.
Nathan Persky was the religious leader of Aiken’s Jewish community, hugely respected, and I was privileged to have a special relationship with him. Although it wasn’t widely known or appreciated, he was an outstanding Hebraist of national repute, as well as an expert on Jewish rituals and customs. My Orthodox grandparents in Charleston, Abe and Edith Kirshtein, were terribly worried that I would grow up in Aiken completely ignorant of Judaism, so Grandfather Abe arranged for Mr. Persky to tutor me. I vividly recall Mr. Persky closing his store and meeting me for lessons several times a week. As a result, I learned not only prayers but conversational Hebrew, and was even exposed to modern Hebrew poetry. Another precious memory I have is of my grandparents driving to Aiken from Charleston, and my grandfather sitting in on my lessons.
Nathan and Nettie Franzblau lived directly in back of us. Nathan had served in World War I and been gassed in France. It was said the Franzblaus settled in Aiken because they thought the climate would be good for his health. Mr. Franzblau led services in the synagogue, particularly after Mr. Persky died, and to quiet the hubbub in the sanctuary, he would slam his hand down on the reading desk a couple of times. That did get everybody’s attention, at least for a little while.
Several of Aiken’s Jewish families, including my own, also belonged to Augusta’s Orthodox synagogue (it’s now Conservative), and the children would carpool in the afternoon to Hebrew school there. This gave us the opportunity to meet more Jewish kids and to attend bar mitzvah dances in Augusta. My bar mitzvah took place at Augusta’s Adath Yeshurun in January 1967, and one year later we moved to Charleston.
While I did not encounter a lot of anti-Semitism growing up, I do remember kids occasionally making disparaging remarks. Certainly I was aware of belonging to a very small group—a slim minority of the population. At the same time, we had good friends who were not Jewish, and living in Aiken was a positive experience for me. I also would note that Aiken’s tiny Jewish community enjoyed a profile well beyond its numbers. At least three Jews have served on Aiken’s City Council: Mandle Surasky, Steve Surasky (the current president of Adath Yeshurun), and my father, Raymond Kaplan. Irene K. Rudnick has had a distinguished career in the South Carolina legislature and as an educator. She is pictured in an exhibit on prominent women at the Aiken Museum, which also features a photograph of my great-aunt Julia Wolf, whose elegant dress shop was a well-known Aiken landmark.
I feel very close to Aiken and am proud to be a member of Adath Yeshurun, as were my parents and grandparents before me. It’s remarkable how Aiken retains the affection of people who lived there, or whose families lived there. The number of people who came back to Aiken three years ago for Adath Yeshurun’s 90th anniversary eloquently speaks to that.